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Ben Axelrod column: Browns' likely breakup with Baker Mayfield shouldn't be a surprise

While it may have come as a surprise to some, the Cleveland Browns' impending breakup with Baker Mayfield has been a long time coming.

CLEVELAND — Sports gambling hasn't been put into effect in Ohio yet, but if it had been in January, there's a good chance you could have gotten odds on who the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback will be in 2022. And in all likelihood, Baker Mayfield would have been the favorite.

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After all, it was Mayfield -- not Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston or Malik Willis -- who had the inside track to be the Browns' starting quarterback in 2022, by way of already holding that position and still being under contract. Compare Mayfield to any other individual quarterback and it would have been impossible to say that the alternative was the more likely candidate to start for Cleveland next season.

Make it a matter of Baker Mayfield vs. the field, however, and the odds might have told a different story.

While general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski remained publicly committed to Mayfield this offseason, their actions told a different story -- well before the team publicly pursued Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson this week. Most notably, the Browns and Mayfield have yet to engage in meaningful negotiations on a potential contract extension, a red flag for any former first-round pick entering the final year of his rookie contract.

To his credit, Berry did his best to downplay any awkwardness that having Mayfield in a "lame duck" season might cause. But the reality remains that there's a reason why only two former first-round quarterbacks have entered the fifth year of their contracts with the teams that drafted them without extensions in place.

If Cleveland was really going to bring back Mayfield on the final season of his contract without an extension in place, the Browns would have owed it to themselves to also bring in a viable backup to compete with him. And considering how Mayfield handled the news that Cleveland was courting Watson -- by posting a letter to social media that seemingly read as a goodbye -- it's fair to also wonder how the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft would have handled a de facto quarterback competition.

Credit: AP
Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, left, celebrates the team's touchdown with quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Contract logistics aside, the breakup between the Browns and Mayfield has been brewing since last season.

In January, Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported on the apparent rift between Mayfield and Stefanski -- a report that Mayfield publicly took issue with even though the rift was obvious to anyone who watched the team's press conferences. On multiple occasions, the quarterback questioned the head coach's game plan and play-calling, and even admitted that he didn't feel like he had been put in the best positions by Stefanski throughout the season.

Stefanski never fired back and would attribute Mayfield's criticisms to the emotions associated with competition. But it's hard to imagine the Oklahoma product's comments helped build much trust between himself as Cleveland's coaching staff and front office, which have their own jobs to worry about entering 2022.

For as much goodwill as Berry and Stefanski have built since arriving in Cleveland two years ago, NFL owners only have so much tolerance for disappointing outcomes. And while their jobs may not have been in jeopardy following the Browns' 8-9 record in 2021, owner Jimmy Haslam might not be as forgiving if his team falls short of expectations again in 2022.

In essence, Cleveland's G.M. and head coach had to decide whether they were willing to risk their jobs on Mayfield being the Browns' starter again in 2022. Their words might have told you that they did. But their actions have said otherwise.

And then there's the matter of Mayfield, who seemed to sour on his Cleveland experience throughout an injury-plagued 2021 campaign. 

Following the Browns' Week 11 matchup vs. the Detroit Lions, the 26-year-old signal-caller didn't stick around to celebrate with his teammates on the field and refused to speak with the media -- and that was after a win. By the time Cleveland's Week 18 finale vs. the Cincinnati Bengals arrived with the Browns already eliminated from playoff contention, Mayfield opted not to play, as he previously stated that it was a decision that he, his family and agent would make -- not the team.

And if you really wanted to read between the lines, Mayfield didn't mention the Browns in a video message that he posted after undergoing shoulder surgery in January.

Credit: AP
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

While it may appear that Cleveland's pursuit of Watson burned its bridge with its current quarterback, Mayfield, himself, admitted this week that his uncertain future with the Browns dates back months.

"I have no clue what happens next, which is the meaning behind this silence I have had during the duration of this process," Mayfield said, alluding to his break from social media, which began in January.

Add it all together and nothing that has happened this week, from Cleveland's pursuit of Watson, to Mayfield's response and subsequent trade request, should come as a surprise. 

The Browns and Mayfield were always headed toward a breakup.

If allowed, I would have bet on it.

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